Sadik yells. Everything that comes out of his mouth, good or bad, seems to be constructed entirely of large capital letters, followed by numerous exclamation marks. On the rare occasions when you can make him understand that you’d really like him to stop yelling, he then falls into a sort of continuous stream of dark muttering. Silence is not his métier.
Even if you can’t see him, if he’s anywhere in the vicinity, you can hear him shouting and talking to himself. You can always hear him coming. “JO PASHA ZOTIN, PO VALAHOJ!!!” (No Lord God, Yes! By God!). You can sit and watch him meandering around his meadows, checking fences, uprooting blackberry brambles, looking for signs of his arch nemeses, the thrice-cursed badgers. His inexhaustible running commentary will carry back on the breeze. If his serene daughter Ida is with you, you might look at her, raise an eyebrow and ask “What’s he talking about?” She will respond by shrugging, and affectionate laughter will bubble out of her. “Who knows?” And then you giggle too.
I first met him just after Alfred bought me the House in Dojan. My phone rang. I answered. “I am the Lord of the Land!” (Zoti i Tokes) a loud voice announced. “Oh really?” I said politely, wondering as usual if my grasp of Albanian was less firm than I’d imagined. “Er . . . how nice for you?”
I know intellectually that 80% of Tropojans have no papers for their land. But up here, everyone knows whose land is whose, papers or no. The fields in Dubrov are criss-crossed by neat rows of white rocks which delineate grazing pastures, or access to the valuable blackberry brambles. It turns out that much of the land in Dojan traditionally belongs to Sadik and his (much smarter, much more dangerous) brother Isuf. Even Sadik seems to be afraid of him. True, some houses (like mine) bothered to take the formal certificates from the “Hippoteke” and the Hasandocaj brothers can’t argue with that. “But that hill next to the house, inside your fence, that’s mine. And if you want to use it, you have to buy it from me. Otherwise I’ll come and fence it off.” It’s a tiny piece of land. But it is inside my fence. And some years I like to sit on it. It has a tremendous view. “Better not to have a conflict with them,” said Alfred. So he bought it for me. The Hasandocaj wanted 50 lek per m2. The cost of a coffee. In return, the whole neighborhood signed a large A3 piece of paper (the bigger the paper, the more official I guess?) confirming that they accept that the land is now mine. Even the Kryeplak (Village Head) signed and stamped it.
So a few years later, when it became obvious that my recently acquired horses were driving ‘my’ cousin (Alfred’s cousin, my friend) Gzim in Valbona mad – Johnnie had taken to jumping the fence and getting into the other cousins’ cornfields, so that Gzim was getting calls at 3 am every night from people screeching to “Remove that DAMN horse!” – I called Sadik. I thought that as Zoti i Tokes, he if anyone would have some land where I could put my horses. And he did.
He agreed to rent me a meadow near his house, and we would bear the cost of refencing it together – 2 meters high so that (when it was done) the horses would actually have a hectare by the river in Bujan where they could run free to their hearts’ content. And NOT get out. This was in August. It would take several months to refence their (my?) field, and in the meantime he offered me to put the horses on two small meadows down below his house, next to the river.
The first night I spent sleeping in one of Sadik’s meadows was after the “3rd Death March,” when I brought the horses (3 of them), single-handed and with an arm I’d broken that morning, 40 km out of Valbona to their new home in Bujan. We walked it. Under a blistering sun, along a narrow road defined by blind hairpin turns, with cement trucks rattling around the corners. One side of the road was a cliff face, the other was usually a sheer drop to the river. I left at 10 am, and arrived in Bujan at 7pm. Because one arm was dangling uselessly at my side, I couldn’t take the top off a water bottle, so didn’t drink anything all day. Because I’d (stupidly) roped the horses together, I couldn’t stop for a rest, or the horses would start milling about and get themselves into a terrible tangle. I was wearing a large floppy sun hat.
I didn’t know the horses very well. Hardly at all really. And knew less than nothing about horses in general.
Therefore, once I’d gotten them there, I thought it was wise to sleep the night with them, just to make sure they were okay. Jordi came and brought a tent, sleeping bags – the BEST 4 beers I’ve ever had in my life. And ice creams. Just before dark, Sadik came down and shouted at us for a while. “COME AND SLEEP IN THE HOUSE! YOU’LL DIE OUT HERE! THE RIVER MAKES MIST AT NIGHT AND IT IS COLD!!! WE WILL GIVE YOU OUR BEDS!!!!” But we have a tent, Sadik – we’ll be fine. And finally, after almost an hour of yelling, he stalked off muttering that we were insane. So we slept side-by-side, outside, under the stars, the horses wuffling and grazing around us.
It was very beautiful. The whole world was perfect, peaceful, and I could hear the river nearby. As long as I didn’t move my arm, everything was perfect.
Around 3 am I was suddenly awake. Why? I listened. And there it was again. A strange dinning noise, as if some ominous ceremony was happening nearby, something out of Deliverence, or as if someone was beating pots and pans with a stick. It stopped. It wasn’t very nearby, but too close for comfort. I waited, tense. The moon had gone and there was no light. Just the stars, far away and long ago. And there it was again. I listened, hard as I could. It stopped again. Somewhere up by the farmhouse.
And then a new noise. The particular sharp thin crack and whizz of bullets. That was much closer. The noise seemed to pass right over us, as if I could put a hand up (if my arm wasn’t broken) and pluck a bullet right out of the air. It stopped and I thought about it.
Something very strange was going on. Jordi was still sleeping peacefully next to me, happy soft breaths coming out of him. I nudged him. Nothing. I kicked him. “Mhm?”
“I think someone’s shooting at us. Well. Over us.”
“Oh,” he said.
“Maybe they don’t know we’re here?” So he felt around, found a headtorch, lit it and waved it around.
Pots and pans again. But definitely further away. I think?
We laid there some more, listening. Crack! Whizz!
But now my brain was clearing. “Actually, I don’t think that’s bullets. The ‘whizz’ is too . . . fluffy? I think it’s fire crackers.” What they call kapsule here. WHY do I know these things? I’d been shot at (accidentally) several times before. Whereas little boys determined to be bad are often getting hold of kapsule. (Most notably in my classroom when I was teaching English in Valbona, but that is another story).
It carried on for a bit, no one came to murder us, and after a while it either stopped, or we fell asleep again. In any case I woke up again at dawn. I was just thinking how nice it was, to lie there in the dew-spangled meadow, listening to the horses and curled up against Jordi, who was deliciously warm, not moving my arm, when I heard the approaching monologue of Sadik. At first it was just a rumble, punctuated by outbursts, but as it got closer I could pick out words. “SLEEPING ON THE GROUND! PROBABLY DEAD! THE RIVER! MIST! COLD!” (grumble grumble). “CRAZY PEOPLE! I TOLD THEM!” When he hove into view (and Sadik does ‘hove’) he yelled “GOOD MORNING!”
I was already scrambling out of my sleeping bag. Hauling my arm (painfully) after me. Jordi wasn’t far behind me. We sat up and tried to look as if we hadn’t in any way, shape, or form been even vaguely cuddled up. This sort of thing is not done here. But then again, much of what I do isn’t done here and since then I’ve come to realize that I have a sort of carte blanche for oddity here. A year later, Jordi and I will decide to sleep in the shelter of a boulder buried in the forest by Kukaj, as we’ve stupidly left it too late to hike up to a decent cave and it’s started to rain and get dark. A shepherd comes down from the mountain, passing us on his horse. It’s Ram. Jordi starts vaguely scuttling about. “What are you doing?” I ask. “Well, won’t they think this is odd?” he says. “Oh no, they’ll just think it’s ME,” I say. And sure enough Ram spots us. “Oh Catherine! How are you? Are you sleeping here tonight?” “I’m good,” I call back, “And yes!” “Well, goodnight!” he says and passes on. This story will later put Alfred into whoops of laughter. It’s as if Tropojans have collectively decided that I’m mad, but harmless. And anyhow “Ajo eshte e Jona.” She is ours.
“OH MIRE MENGJESI!” bellows Sadik again (Good morning!), grinning like a madman. “A JENI GJALLE?” (Are you alive?).
It isn’t even 7 am yet. He plonks himself down happily by our (unused) tent, and yells some more. “IS THIS YOUR TENT? WHY DIDN’T YOU SLEEP IN IT? I TOLD YOU! WHY DIDN’T YOU SLEEP AT THE HOUSE? WHAT ABOUT BREAKFAST?”
When he takes a breath, I interrupt him. “And you? How are you? Did you sleep?”
“PASHA ZOTIN, JO. JAM LODH.” No by god, I’m exhausted. I was up all night, frightening the badgers.
“Yes! They get in the corn! So we were all up all night, I made Tale (his wife) get up too. We were banging pots and pans.”
“And kapsule?” I ask.
I explain to Jordi, and we collapse in giggles. And then they see my arm. It’s turned completely black overnight, and suddenly Jordi and Sadik are allied. Jordi packs up everything. Sighs at me when I try to pick up a saddle with my good arm. “Please put it down?” The horses are blasé. Fine. Jordi brings them water, and then shoves me into the laden car. We are going to the hospital. Alfred always said that you had to get there early, before the doctors had time to get drunk. Alfred tends to be a bit negative.
When we pass the house, Sadik flags us down, and climbs in. “Do you need to go somewhere?” I ask. “NO BY GOD, I’M COMING WITH YOU!” And this I think is when I start to love him.
Because Sadik is terrified of cars. Apparently he slammed his hand in a car door as a child, crushing the bones, and has basically never gotten over it, or in one – if he could possibly avoid it – since. He himself has a very nice, old, red tractor, and a moped. If he has to go somewhere – even to Durres to see Isuf, 5 hours and a long highway away – he goes on the moped. Without a helmet of course. He paced with Jordi behind me at the hospital, a bit shy, clearly surprised by how everyone greeted me. Watched, impressed, as I was passed in front of everyone else, and then muttered darkly at the pharmacy that I was being overcharged. It was like having a guardian bear along.
This was in August 2019. My horses stayed in his lower meadow all that autumn and into winter. He insisted that I bring them up to the house every night, and tie them up in the little yard next to the cowshed, safe by the house. “YOU CAN’T LEAVE THEM DOWN THERE, OVERNIGHT – THE WOLVES WILL EAT THEM!” I thought this was nonsense, but it was easier to do what he told me, and learn something, than argue against the tide of his inexhaustible yelling.
They made his life a misery.
Duli, the little pack pony, Eyeore reincarnated, would manage to shuck his halter half the nights, and amble over to harass Griva, making her scream and buck (right below Sadik’s window). Between the badgers and the horses, it’s a wonder he ever got any sleep at all.
So that’s how it started that every morning and every evening I ran in and out of his house. I collected horses, fed them, turned on the illegal water pump, filled the troughs, collected grain, took down buckets, hung up buckets, stored my hay . . . Often he tried to help. Usually I told him not to. I didn’t want to be a bother, and I also jealously wanted to know the horses myself. By myself. He was amazed – and amused – when I insisted on carting wheelbarrows of their poo to his fields. I’LL DO THAT! He yelled. No you won’t, I yelled back.
And every morning he yelled at me COME HAVE A COFFEE! And every evening he yelled at me COME HAVE DINNER! LEAVE THE HORSES AND COME IN FOR A VISIT. YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG ANYHOW. DO YOU WANT SOME TOMATOES? PEPPERS? EGGPLANTS?
But Sadik you gave me an enormous bag of tomatoes yesterday. How do you imagine I could possibly have eaten them all by today? I just want to put the horses out. Or put them in. I have to go to work. I don’t have time for a coffee.
Once he came down to the lower meadow to see what the hell I was doing down there, for an hour or more. I was grooming the horses. STOP BRUSHING THEIR HAIR! YOU DON’T EVEN BRUSH YOUR OWN HAIR! He bellowed (which is true). COME AND HAVE A COFFEE?
Sometimes, often, I gave in. I came to love shoving Tale out of the way, to wash the dishes. Marveling at her clever dime store gadgets, that let her produce the most fabulous food in minutes (which would have taken me hours). Slurping down the incredibly rich eggplant mess that Ida would make when she was back home on holiday from university in Tirana. Sometimes, if Tale was out picking blackberries, picking chestnuts, picking any of the exhausting things she will spend hours picking to earn a few euros to send to Ida in Tirana, some men might arrive to visit Sadik, and I would catch his panicked eye. He had to offer them hospitality, but a man can’t make coffee for other men, offer qerasje. I’d put down my brush, my bucket, my pitchfork and smile cheerfully. Go inside with them and do the honors. “Who is she?” they’d ask him, as I moved around the kitchen. “Oh, she’s the American” Sadik would say loftily. “And she’s making us coffee?” “Ajo eshte e Jona.”
But equally often I didn’t give in. And we’d end up yelling at each other.
“I don’t WANT a coffee!” I’d scream.
“Geez,” he’d say. “Where’s Jordi? He’s a good man. I ask him to have a coffee, and ‘okay’ he says.”
“He’s gone back to the Netherlands,” I’d say.
“Did he get a haircut?” asks Sadik.
And “GAAAAH!” I scream, and stalk off.
Once, Tale went to visit relations in Tirana with Ida, and Sadik was alone in the house for a week. Well maybe 5 days. I made chicken soup, and brought him some. I worried I’d put too much pepper in. But he liked it. Or said he did. One afternoon I sat with him on the sofa and watched Men in Black on his television. Almost all of the humor – especially about race – went past him. I made a vague stab at explaining it to him. But he just said to me “Don’t worry – they’re only kukulla.” Dolls, puppets. He was worried the aliens would frighten me.
We went on this way for months. Me arriving – often late – in the morning, and arriving – often late – in the evening. Trotting in and out of their house. Making them crazy. Arguing with Sadik and laughing with Tale. Tale is shrewd. She enjoyed me, likes talking to me, but she never lost sight of the fact that I was an annoyance, only worth suffering for the potential profit it brought. “Sadik is soft,” she’d tell me. “He just likes the horses. But I’m telling you, I’ll never touch them.”
My arm, it turned out, wasn’t actually broken back in August. It was cracked. But my elbow broke off later because I kept lifting heavy things. Normally, your elbow is attached to the bones of your lower arm. But there’s a big muscle that runs from your shoulder to your elbow, and if you keep using it, it will eventually rip your cracked elbow off and draw it halfway up the back of your arm. Which is what happened to me.
It didn’t hurt, but it looked disgusting. And if I tried to reach up – say to take a glass off a high shelf – my arm would just flop uselessly, helplessly to one side. Trying to use the muscle that was now not attached to anything. Well, except a useless lump of bone. Eventually even I had to admit this was odd, and didn’t seem to be fixing itself. So in December, on the way back from Brussels (where I’d met Jordi), I went to the doctor, in distant Prishtina.
“Is my arm supposed to look like this?” I asked, baring both arms for comparison. “Oops!” said the doctor. She later told me that “Oh shit!” is what she actually thought. Ever calm and reassuring she said “No, we need to fix that. Maybe come back on Monday?” How about Tuesday? I said. Okay, she said.
By now it was winter. Freezing gales. Knee-deep mud. At night – which was 16 hours of the day – the horses stood in darkness and thick mud, over their ankles. I was battling through weather to put them out for a few hours a day, and it seemed I’d no more put them out, then it was time to go back and put them in again. Sadik had managed to refence the new field for them, quite far from the house, by “Ura e re” – the new bridge, although there’s no bridge there, and never has been. Tale laughs about this “Still, that’s what that place is called.”
If I managed to bring the horses there, wading through mud that flooded the gum boots that covered my calves, I could watch them run free, for the first time in months. In the lower, badly fenced meadows, they always had to be on 20m ropes. And they DID run, galloping around and around the meadow. My feet were always wet.
It was all exhausting, and impractical. But it worked. Kind of. It worked from day to day.
I didn’t really mind battling through winds, rain stinging my face, darkness. A bad day was when I’d had to go to Kosova, and returned late, to find the river swollen, flooding. I’d tied the horses to trees in the lower meadows, and pictured the river tearing the trees out, dragging the horses behind them, into the rising, rushing, flowing swell. But after I staggered across the meadows, bent double under rain and wind, the sound of it howling in my ears, I found them, in the dim light of my cell phone. “Ketrin! Where the HELL have you been?” Not dead. Not drowned. They followed me patiently back to the farmhouse.
I didn’t mind the hours spent trying to shift mud and horse shit from one mire to another, in the hopes of building up enough mass that the horses might find enough slightly dry land to put at least one foot on. I kept thinking about World War I and trench foot.
“I have to go to Prishtina, for an operation on this arm,” I told Sadik. “I’ll be gone for 2 days, at most 3?”
“Don’t worry about anything,” he said. “I’ll look after them.”
It wasn’t until I was on the operating table, the anesthesia needle going into my arm, that it occurred to me that this might not be such a simple procedure.
“Oh by the way – how long will this take?” I was worried about Liridon Mustafaj, waiting for me.
“Oh well, 2 surgeons – maybe 3 hours?” and BAM I was under.
It wasn’t until the next day, lying around in my hospital bed, waiting to be released, that it occurred to me that I hadn’t even thought to ask what it would cost.
I thought I’d be out by noon. At 5pm, the doctor came, and explained that now I should go home, and that I was not to lift anything or even leave the house, for at least a month.
“But I have horses,” I said.
NO she said.
Can I drive a car?
“You just sit, and don’t move.”
So I started my own, personal, quarantine hell, 3 months before the rest of the world met Covid.
“Don’t worry,” said Liridon Mustafaj, “I’ll talk with Sadik.”
The first week wasn’t so bad. I was mostly eating painkillers (not something I would normally do). Watching youtube videos of murder mysteries.
I stayed on the sofa, by the wood stove, in the winter kitchen. The wood I’d bought was wet. I didn’t have any pine (to start a new fire). “Better not to let it go out,” said Aferdita, who’d I’d come to realize lit the stove by pouring a liter of benzene on the wood. So I burned the stove day and night for weeks.
The second week (or third?) I started knitting. At least I could move my fingers.
Sometimes Sadik would call me, but I didn’t answer. There was nothing I could do. I’d call Liridon. “Don’t worry – I’ll talk to him.”
“What did he want?” I asked. “Oh he was yelling that Johnnie wouldn’t go into the cowshed.” “Why did he call me?” Did he imagine I could get off my sofa, with my mangled arm, and help? “He’s crazy,” said Liridon, “’So leave him out,’ I told him.” And “Good.” I said.
I never panicked. I wanted to, but panic was so far away as an option. I was beyond panic, sunk in the realm of sheer helplessness. I stayed on the sofa. Fed wood into the stove. Wondered why I was bothering, and knitted more socks.
I slept at strange times.
December passed. We were into January. Liridon would bring me groceries – mostly cigarettes, wine – every 3 or 4 days. Aferdita found me lying on the sofa, staring at the wall. I didn’t welcome her. So she stopped coming. Wise little Gerta knew me too well. Until I was pushed to ask for help, it was no use offering. So she kept away too.
It turned into months, not weeks. At some point Liridon put me in the car, and took me back to the doctor. Another month, she said.
My phone would ring. It was Sadik. I never answered.
I missed the horses. But they were far away.
In the Netherlands, Jordi had found a girlfriend. Someone young, and lissome, and full of possibility.
I missed the horses the way you might miss having blood in your veins. But they were very far away.
There was nothing I could do about anything anyhow.
I turned from side to side on the sofa. Sometimes I slept.
My arm still hurt.
I tried not to cling to the phone.
I should explain here about Sadik’s relationship with Ana. At first, when I started coming, he loved her. And she loved him. “OH MOJ ANA – ANA PREJ TIRANA!” He would call to her (Oh my Ana, Ana from Tirana) and she would run to him, head down submissively, butt wiggling. She adored him.
But one day he was trundling a heavy wheelbarrow around. It made a strange noise, and she barked at it – rushed the wheelbarrow, fangs bared.
“But she was trying to protect you,” I said. “She thought the wheelbarrow was attacking you!” But Sadik would have none of it. “She’s dangerous,” he said. He could never stop yelling enough to understand it, and the more he yelled, the more she barked.
By the time Ana and I were coming and going constantly to Sadik’s, Ana (only a year or sold old) had clearly decided that Sadik’s house was part of what she really ought to be protecting. Ana, I sometimes think, has really only a tiny pea brain. Although an enormous heart. And who’s to say where wisdom lies? In any case, she started attacking anyone who came near the place. When the neighbors passed with their cows, Ana would rush forth. One particularly disastrous night, the neighbors stopped for a chat by the gate. Ana burst onto them, and scattered their cows up the hill and into Dubrov. The neighbors insisted it had taken them “all night” to gather the cows again. Which personally, I don’t believe. But in any case, their patience was at an end. Their farmhouse is before Sadik’s, on the narrow dirt road that serves them both. “We will block the road,” they said, “And it’s too bad for you. Do what you want,” they said “Take whatever money you can get, but that woman and her devil dog aren’t welcome here.”
And there were other things. Ana is sympathetic. When Sadik started yelling, when I got frustrated, when he was bothering me, trying to figure things out for myself, she would start growling.
Sadik was beside himself. The only person he could be mad at was Ana. Tale as usual was more clever. “I told you 1000 times,” she said coldly, “That you had to chain that dog up.”
By the time I had to go for the operation, approaching the farmhouse had become a misery. Ana didn’t know why she was in disgrace, but she knew that she was. I used to go later and later, every morning, hoping that Sadik and Tale wouldn’t be home. That Ana and I could just go to the horses, and avoid it all. But often we’d get caught. And then there would be yelling, which at worst set Ana to barking.
So back to me, lying on my sofa.
Eventually, Sadik had enough. I’d said I’d leave the horses for maximum 3 days, and it had been over a month. I never answered the phone. Over the summer he’d called me his sister, and offered me the right to change my last name to Hasandocaj. I don’t know whether he was more frustrated, or concerned, but one day I heard him and Tale arrive downstairs. The front door was open, of course. The dogs have to go in and out. There was smoke coming out of the chimney, the wood stove was lit. These are all signs to an Albanian that visitors are welcome. So Sadik and Tale came in.
By this time, after weeks alone, I was like a wild animal. I could hear them moving around downstairs, calling me, but I just froze. I froze. I was upstairs in the winter kitchen. Ana was with me, and she launched into a volley of furious barking. I knew Sadik – no matter how comfortable he was with moving around the house yelling to me – would never dare to open a door containing Ana. So I was safe.
“Go away, go away, go away,” I chanted over and over again. I was like a trapped animal, terrified. “Go away, go away, go away,” I begged. I tiptoed across the floor. Tucked myself behind the refridgerator.
But they didn’t go away. And after 5 or 10 minutes it started to occur to me that I was being ridiculous. But it was too late. There was no way to explain, politely, why I hadn’t welcomed them. Why I hadn’t answered the phone for weeks. Why I was hiding behind the refridgerator. Every second that passed made it more and more impossible that I could suddenly emerge, claiming to have been asleep, claiming to have been in the bathroom, claiming anything. I had nothing to give. It never occurred to me – I didn’t know – how to receive.
“Go away, go away, go away,” I thought.
Just then Liridon Mustafaj showed up. Found Sadik and Tale camped out downstairs. Came upstairs, not afraid of Ana, opened the door and found me hiding behind the refridgerator. I put a finger to my lips, “Shhhh.” He laughed.
“Tell them I’m not here?” I begged, in a whisper.
“Of course.” And he did. And there was a lot of yelling downstairs, and then the sound of engines – car and moped, and it seemed they all left.
I found out later (from Aferdita) that they went all around the neighborhood, asking everyone where I was. An electrician working on a pole outside (Adi Shoshi, probably – he has dogs too) told them he hadn’t seen me. So I hadn’t left the house.
Smoke from the woodstove was curling out the chimney.
Albanians are masters of the polite white lie. The lie that needs to be told, to maintain the social fabric. I have seen Alfred tell a person that so-and-so is fine, when I know for a fact that that person has recently fled the family in a mass of scandal, leaving weeping women, furious men, and utter chaos. “Mire, mire.” Good, good – everyone’s fine. My jaw dropped, but I never contested it.
Not much longer, after that, Liridon called me very early one morning. “Sorry – but Sadik says he put the horses in your yard?”
“Don’t be silly,” I said, “I haven’t heard anything.” Even Liridon doesn’t know what Sadik is talking about, half the time. “Hold on,” I said, and went to the window. And there they were. Johnnie looking curious, Griva looking resigned, and Duli looking hopefully hungry. I rushed out into the winter morning, in my pajamas, barefoot. It had been a month or more since I’d seen them. I ran to them, and they crowded around me. “Oh there you are, you stupid two-legger!” Johnnie looked delighted, and smug (You see? I told you!). Griva looked relieved. Duli looked grumpy and hungry (“I couldn’t care less, but what is there to EAT?”). We bumped and jostled and greeted each other. “Welcome home,” I whispered in their ears. “Pooh,” said Duli.
I spent 4 or 5 months with them in my front yard. Well. Only yard. They ate everything. They destroyed everything. They ate the bark off trees, including the precious peach tree Winnie is buried under. And I loved it. I could hear them moving at night. I could wake at 3 am, in the worst weather – furious winter storms – and pull on the boots by my front door, and go to them. I could wake, and hear them moving.
In the morning, when the sun came up, Johnnie and Duli would line up by the front door, and Johnnie would scream “We are HUNGRY!!!” (Horses are always hungry.) I got up.
Spring came. Jordi returned, carrying the ghost of his nice, normal girlfriend into the house. When he went to talk to her – long, loving calls which I did my best NOT to overhear, I went to the horses. I spent hours brushing them. Sometimes, usually around 10 am, they’d all lie down for a nap in the spring sunshine.
“Ah ha!” I’d think, and rush out, climb onto their backs and try to hold on while whichever horse I’d chosen to torture climbed, irritated, to their feet. Most often I fell off. Rolled over them and plonked in the mud, laughing. Sometimes I held on, and I once spent over 2 hours just sitting on Griva. There was nothing to do. I chatted, chattered, and braided her mane. She didn’t seem to mind it, really. I felt my legs change shape.
But I never called Sadik. I never thanked him.
March passed, and April. The land outside the house looked like Verdun, or Ypres.
“We have to move them,” said Jordi.
I KNOW I said, but didn’t.
In May Erenik said that it was a mistake to put horses on new pasture – they’d kill the grass before it had a chance to grow. So we got a reprieve. Wait another 2 weeks, he said. I started taking them outside, tying them up to graze all around the neighborhood. I’d read about how fresh new grass is too rich for them all at once, so I started them 20 minutes one day, half an hour the next.
The land around the house is dotted with graves. They don’t have graveyards here, you bury your dead near the house. If you liked the dead, you put up a tombstone, tend the grave. Leave biscuits and juice and such things on it. One day “my” dog Fati showed up with a packet of biscuits in her mouth. “She’s taken it off a grave,” said Aferdita, and went to find the grave, and snagged the other pack of biscuits to give to her 10 year old son. “Oh well,” she giggled, “Fati’s already ruined it.” Back when I’d bought the hill, Sadik had told me that his mother was buried somewhere under where I parked my car. “But my father didn’t like her so she killed herself, and I don’t know where exactly she is. Somewhere around here.” After a week or two, Cela came to tell me that I really shouldn’t tie my horses to people’s graves. Cela is a good man. He told me he owned land up the hill, and I was welcome to take them there. So I did.
I got to carry on living with the horses. And I didn’t have to face Sadik.
But eventually it was time. On a beautiful early summer morning, I set off. With the horses. Jordi had been fussing that he needed to call the girlfriend, but eventually he came too. By now the horses had come to understand that I was their human – so different when I’d brought them out of Valbona – and they followed me happily. “Golly, where are we going now?” We passed the road, and took off across the fields of Dubrov. Jordi grinned at me, and we were all, for once, perfectly happy. There was something ancient-feeling about this. Just walking across the land, with your horses.
We passed Nusha, the woman who’d sold me the sheep two years ago. She laughed to see me. “What a blessing you have!” She said. “Life is beautiful? Pass well!” And the horses and I gave her blessings back.
Even better, the direct, overland route to the refenced meadow didn’t take us past Sadik’s house. So I still didn’t have to face him.
We arrived, triumphant, in the new meadow. The world was paradise. I let the horses free, and they moved out into their new home, modestly delighted. They started eating.
Last year, when I’d helped Sadik finish the fencing – he insisted on weaving brambles through the barbed wire “THEY MIGHT NOT SEE THE WIRE! THEY NEED TO UNDERSTAND IT’S A WALL!” – the shepherds had gathered for a chat and all agreed that I couldn’t leave the horses out here, at night. “The wolves will get them.”
WHAT wolves? I thought. The horses in Valbona – where there are a LOT of wolves – wander free. Nonsense, I thought. A few weeks later, Duli would be dead. His bitten and chewed carcass lying in the middle of paradise meadows, by the (non-existant) new bridge. He was still Duli, but his teeth were bared, in death, and his stomach and shoulder were missing. Guts trailed across the grass. Griva and Johnnie would be not-shivering nearby. But not yet. For now, all I had to face was Sadik.
One morning, we packed up some things. Some cans of beer, a bag of pretzels, some other things, I forget. Qerasje. The traditional gift of respect. I’m not sure Jordi understood. “He can’t be mean to you, if I’m there.” I hope not, I thought.
We drove. We arrived. I got out of the car, and stood by the gate. I called. “Oh Zoti i Shpis” (oh sir of the house). This is respectful here. Although I’d trotted in and out of his house all the previous year, now I needed to ask for permission. The house was silent. I was about to give up (relieved), when a door opened, and a figure emerged. Sadik. He was bizarrely quiet.
“Oh – is it you?” is all he asked. And then, as he hovered and didn’t come nearer. “I don’t know, this virus . . . “
“WE’VE COME FOR A COFFEE!” I yelled.
“I don’t know . . . “ Sadik’s voice came small and far away. “Well, come in then.”
He meant come in the fence. I wasn’t allowed in the house. I held out the bag of qerasje. “What is that?” he said, “No.” At the house he called inside to Tale: “Come out! Catherine is here.” I held out the qerasje to Tale, and “Don’t take it,” said Sadik. This was going to be worse than I’d imagined. But Tale is shrewd, and “Okay,” she said, winking evily at me, not particularly friendly, and whipped the bag inside the house. Jordi didn’t understand anything, and sat, looking solid and Nordic and half-asleep.
And Sadik started yelling.
“YOU PAID FOR THE FIELD FOR ONE YEAR, AND IT’S YOURS. BUT NEXT YEAR, YOU ARE GONE. YOU ARE CLEVER AND INTELLIGENT, AND PROBABLY A GOOD PERSON, BUT BY GOD YOU DISRESPECTED US. I DIDN’T COME TO YOUR HOUSE AS A MAN. I BROUGHT MY WIFE – YOU WERE INSIDE!!!”
And of course, he’s right. But I take refuge in the Albanian polite white lie. “I WASN’T home,” I insisted.
At this point, he is supposed to cave. But Sadik is Sadik, and despite the fact that he is now hurting me, and I have hurt him for months, I think I love him better than ever now. Because he is right. But I can’t admit it. Because he can’t possibly understand. He comes from a culture which functions, which has rules. He will never understand why I was hiding behind the refridgerator that day, clasping the wall, and I can’t explain it to him. And within his culture, all I can do is lie.
Although I do give up fault. “You are right, and I behaved very badly. There is nothing good about how I was. But I was really, really sick. And anyhow, I thought Liridon Mustafaj was handling it.”
Tale has returned by now, with a tray, with coffee and raki for Jordi. But she watches me with cold eyes.
It is a little better, by the time we leave. But not much. Jordi didn’t understand the half of it, but he sees that I’m – philosophically – shaking.
A day later, I drive past Sadik. He has been refencing his meadows, to be badger-proof, and he’s inspecting the fence. I am skeptical. I google badgers and learn that they normally tunnel 1 to 4 meters underground. Sadik has made a berlin wall of a fence, which extends about 20 cm into the ground. He starts yelling at me. COME AND HAVE A COFFEE? YOU ARE A BAD PERSON.
Coming anywhere near him exhausts me. I don’t know how to fight. Because he’s right. “Please stop being mad at me?” I say, “I can’t stand it.” And he embraces me. I think things are beginning to be fixed, but they aren’t. He may embrace me, he may be kind, but always he returns to this theme: Next year, you’re gone.
And then Duli dies. Jordi and I are standing over his body. I feel numb. It’s only when Sadik comes rumbling down the road, comes up to us, that I can weep. And Sadik holds me. He puts his arms around me and tells me not to be sad, not to feel responsible. “It happens,” he says. And tells me about sheep of his that got eaten, animals grabbed by wolves when he was only 20m away. “Thank god you’re alive,” he says, “The rest you are not responsible for. You do your best.” Even though he TOLD me not to leave the horses there at night. But he doesn’t remind me. I think we’re fine.
But we’re not. The next week is a horrible scramble. To construct a shed for the remaining two horses, to put them in at night (I am CERTAIN they won’t go inside), to fend off the wolves. At first Sadik is super helpful. But once they’re building, he comes around and says “I don’t know why you’re bothering. I told you, you’re not welcome here, after December.”
“It’s Catherine,” say the builders. She’s ours.
“No,” says Sadik. She is a bad person. She disrespected me. I didn’t want to say anything when she was upset, but she can go where she wants, but she can’t be here. Maybe I’ll put a bed in the stall, and sleep here.”
He leaves, and the builders try to reassure me. Sadik is stupid! They say. He’ll calm down. But in my heart of hearts, I know he’s right. But the lie, my fault, has become too big to undo.
Weeks pass, and months. I start parking the car by the road, and walking overland to get to the horses, to avoid Sadik. It’s a nice walk, and I don’t mind it. But when I DO run into him “COME AND HAVE A COFFEE!” he yells at me. And “As if,” I think.
Very occasionally he comes down to the meadow. As ever he yells about how I haven’t come for a coffee. He yells about what a bad person I am. He yells and yells and yells. And I stay calm. But not inside.
The meadow changes. Even when I first brought the horses down, it wasn’t the happy place I expected. Jordi’s new girlfriend haunted and ruined our time there, as she haunted and ruined the house. We tried camping out. I left drunk and in tears, staggering blind across Tropoja with Ana at midnight. Then Duli died. The meadow was a source of horror. Even the horses ran away from it, re-crossing the fields to come home, to the house. But eventually we had to go back. And we did. Me and the horses together. And slowly, it changed. It became a happy place. It took months. Jordi left again. It was just me and the horses, and Ana. And the meadow changed. The river helped. People started to come visit, and every evening, every morning, there were people swimming in the river, being happy. I felt far away from them, but it helped.
Occasionally, Sadik turned up, to uproot the young blackberry brambles which had started to colonize the field. “WHO IS GOING TO PAY ME FOR THIS WORK?” he yelled. I wanted to hit him. I said “If something needs to be done, tell me, and I will do it. But don’t assume I know. You know how ignorant I am.” Which made him mutter.
A few days ago, I arrived, happy, on a cool summer morning. I opened the gate, ushered Ana in, to the one place where she can run and gambol freely, and then tensed as I saw Sadik, small but present, pickaxe in hand, doing something unspeakable to brambles by the far fence. I ignored him, and he ignored me. Would Ana attack him? But no, she just watched him calmly, and then padded after me. I let the horses out. He still ignored me. I went down to the river and refilled their water. I came back up, carrying two buckets of fresh water as an offering. He still ignored me. I gathered the horses and started “working” with them. Which really means playing games, and getting them to be comfortable and trust me. He still ignored me.
But when Mujo arrived with his cows (the tenant of the next field over), he called me. I’d said good morning by then. “COME AND HAVE A CHAT?” he yelled. Oh for gods sake, I thought, and put the brush down. Sadik called Mujo as well, and the three of us met by the fence. And Sadik started yelling. “BY GOD I’VE BEEN OUT HERE SINCE 5 AM. YOU SHOULD TAKE THE BRAMBLES OUT OF THE MEADOW! SHE’S A WOMAN, AND STUPID, AND DOESN’T KNOW ANY BETTER, BUT. . . “ And Mujo starts yelling back. “I pay you to graze my cows, not to maintain your meadows, and anyhow, I’m your cousin.” And they go back and forth, yelling and yelling and yelling. I am standing by calmly. I can’t get a word in, literally, edgewise. I start tugging on Sadik’s sleeve. I tug and tug and tug. Mujo takes a breath, and says “I think she wants to say something.”
OH TO HELL WITH HER, SHE’S THE WORST OF THE LOT yells Sadik AND I CANT EVEN YELL AT HER BECAUSE SHES A WOMAN!
But she’s our sister, says Mujo, and before you know it, they’re yelling about ME. SHE ISN’T! says Sadik, and OF COURSE SHE IS, yells Mujo. And he laughs, and winks at me.
I keep tugging at Sadik’s sleeve. WHAT? He yells at me. “I don’t come to your house because you are always mad at me,” I say. I DON’T CARE says Sadik. ALL I WANT IS THAT YOU TAKE A COFFEE. I OFFER YOU VEGETABLES – TOMATOES, PEPPERS, EGGPLANTS – EVEN IF I’M NOT HOME YOU CAN JUST GO AND TAKE THEM!” And Mujo is laughing. “You have to go drink coffee,” he says to me. “It’s respect.” And they carry on yelling at each other, whether or not I’m a bad person, and I just turn around and walk away. I go to the horses’ stall and take the rake. I walk back. I start raking up the blackberry brambles Sadik has uprooted. They are still yelling. Sadik notices. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? STOP THAT! I’LL DO IT! And he takes the rake from me. So I take the pick axe. Mujo winks at me. “Go and have a coffee,” he says. And disappears. I start stalking around the meadow, finding a few blackberries Sadik missed. I raise the pick axe over my head and bring it down. Sadik comes over and watches me.
You don’t have to lift the kazem so high, he says. So I don’t, and OUT pops the blackberry root. Sadik collects them, in his old, weathered, swollen hands. We do this for a while. STOP he says – oh wait, there’s another one over here. And I amble over and hack it out. Only one more, says Sadik, and then we’re done. And I go back to the horses, and he comes with me. Ana is tied to the shady tree.
“Is she still mad at me?” asks Sadik.
I think about arguing, but “Go to her,” I say, and he does, and she LOVES him. He sits down happily beside her, his fingers in her hair, and watches me train the horses for an hour. This mostly consists of games, and just trying to work peacefully with them.
“Do they know me?” asks Sadik. And I hand him Griva’s lead rope. He’s still sitting on the ground. He doesn’t get up to meet them. He doesn’t assert his human, male strength. He sits. And pulls. “Not like that,” I say. “I’ve learned. Tug and let go. She’ll come.” So he does, and she does. And he reaches up and tickles her whiskers. “You like it when I tickle your nose, don’t you?” he asks her quietly. And she snuffles him. And he is perfectly happy. It’s a bucket of love.
They need their whiskers, Sadik tells me. If you shave a horse’s whiskers they just get lost. He says. He reaches up and touches Griva’s whiskers. He tickles her. He doesn’t yell. He laughs. And she plays with him.
I’ll come for coffee? I say to him. Tonight?
Really? He says.
And YES. I say. I did. It was heaven to be in the kitchen again. When I left they gave me two bags of vegetables.
Are you going to take that meadow next year? He asks me.
Yes, I say, if you don’t mind.
We are home.